By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall September 10, 2004 at 12:59PM
Up early this morning after an early night (no opening party for me...) and straight to the industry screening of David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees. I have now completed my four film day (including A Head In The Clouds, Nobody Knows, and La femme de Gilles) and despite the excellence of Nobody Knows, Russell's film stands out as the highlight of the day. The review is below... then, off to the Showtime party (and, with great anticipation, my first beer in Canada!)
I ♥ Huckabees is, first and foremost, an honest exploration of the existential crisis in American culture, identity, and the personal quest for meaning in a world gone wild with development. Despite its philosophical gravitas, the film is hilarious in its juxtapositions of character, especially the central rivalry between the poet cum environmentalist Albert Markovsky (an outstanding Jason Schwartzman) and his antithesis, the charming Huckabee's corporate PR wizard Brad Stand (Jude Law). In fact, Russell builds the film on the very dialectics with which any thinking American has struggled; The existential inquiry into coincidence pitted against the nihilistic belief that life has no meaning, the preservation of the environment against the development of corporate interests, and the recognition that in attempting to act in the world, one may adversely effect the fabric of life in the universe. What makes I ♥ Huckabees such a treat is that these weighty philosophical issues (clearly deeply felt by Russell) are placed within a storyline that never lets them become heavy, grim, or incomprehensible. Instead, the film is full of whimsy and humor, where recognition and philosophical exploration are put into physical action. Instead of a Dostoyevskian investigation of man's soul, all grim and isolated, grey skies and cramped quarters, Russell's story uses a premise that feels like the perfect inversion of Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. Instead of allowing doubt to get his characters down (or, as in Sunshine, make them try to erase their pasts), the characters in I Heart Huckabees put belief into action and explore their existential crises through active investigation. Literally. Albert Markovsky has noticed a series of coincidental encounters with an African man that brings him to hire the Existential Investigators Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lilly Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman), who literally follow Albert around, tracking his life's choices and experiences and offering thoughtful commentary on his actions. Of course, by the time Albert meets his 'Other', Tommy, a traumatized post-9/11 fireman (Mark Wahlberg) he has begun, like any good existential client would, to ask the deeper questions about his own life. Steamrolled out of his position as the head of the Open Spaces Environmental Coalition by a disingenuously charming Brad Stand (who will eventually wrestle with his own demons), Albert falls under the spell of a rival philosophical investigator, a French Nihilist (a PERFECTLY cast Isabelle Huppert). If the plot sounds confusing, rest assured, Rusell's comic touch, along with outstanding performances by his uniformly great cast, allows the interconnections to resonate while making every conflict and personal meltdown essential to the movement of the plot. There is no fat on the story, and Russell's understanding of these ideas allow for a clear-eyed movie that never dumbs itself down. There are not enough American movies willing to take on weighty ideas like these, and for Russell to achieve such a breezy tone with such heavy duty material is a testament to his powers as an entertainer. If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, David O. Russell has ensured himself a long and worthy time as a contributor to the interconnected 'blanket of reality.' Here's to hoping that audiences join the quest.